Wheaton is my favorite wide receiver in this draft. There are dozens of plays I’d like to show you and then there’s another dozen of one-on-one moments where he shined against a good class of corners at the Senior Bowl practices. He might not be the best receiver in this class, but I think he’s up there and I’m going to show you why.
A series I started this year at the RSP blog is The Boiler Room. One of the challenges involved with player analysis is to be succinct with delivering the goods. As the author of an annual tome, I’m often a spectacular failure in this respect.
Even so, I will study a prospect and see a play unfold that does a great job of encapsulating that player’s skills. When I witness these moments, I try to imagine if I would include this play as part of a cut-up of highlights for a draft show at a major network or if I was working for an NFL organization creating cut-ups for a personnel director. Unlike the No-Huddle Series, The Boiler Room is focused on prospects I expect to be drafted, and often before the fourth round.
It’s incredibly difficult to boil down any player with just one play. Yet, if I need a play to add to the highlight reel that will help a team make a decision where to slot Markus Wheaton on its board, this is my nomination despite the play after this one on the video is a beautiful touchdown just inside the end line (make sure to watch it).
Wheaton vs. UCLA
This target displays just about everything you want to see from a vertical threat because it begins with single coverage and ends with safety help that was good enough to derail a reception, but didn’t. I like physical players – it’s my old, AFC Central roots – and “physical” play is as much about taking the licks and making the play as dishing them out. Wheaton is small, but he plays like he owns you.
Oregon State is in a standard 11 personnel, 1×2 receiver set with Wheaton at the top of the screen with a cornerback pressing the line of scrimmage. The UCLA defense has both corners tight and seven defenders at the line threatening blitz. The strong safety is in the flat and accounting for the slot receiver on the twin side of the Oregon State formation. Here is the play in its entirety and then I’ll break it down with stills.
It’s a nice, garden-variety NFL catch that a player like Domenik Hixon makes all the time. So why choose it if a reserve NFL wide receiver can make it? For starters, Hixon is a deceptive player. Not all receivers make this play – especially vertical talents with Wheaton’s speed. Many of these players are one-dimensional and get drafted on the promise that they can become fully formed weapons. While not completely one-dimensional, Marquise Goodwin is closer to this negative characterization of his game than Wheaton.
The first thing I like about this play is Wheaton’s willingness to use his hands as the aggressor and to own his space. He doesn’t get jammed at the beginning of the play, but once the receiver works outside the corner that is when the physical play begins.
Wheaton’s competition turns outside to use his hands, but it is Wheaton who establishes first contact with his inside arm. The intent of this contact is to maintain his space between the flat at the sideline. A receiver who allows the defender to bump him outside creates a narrower target for the quarterback to throw the fade. While I could have shown you some nice hand work from Wheaton in other highlights, I think this aspect of vertical routes is the one that holds back many fast, strong, and stick-fingered prospects.
Wheaton may get bumped off course early in his NFL career because an NFL veteran throws something at him that he didn’t anticipate, but at least I know he understands what he’s supposed to do and how to execute it on the field. If a players illustrates these skills at the college game and has the physical prowess to hang with NFL athletes then I’m optimistic of his chances of making a successful transition.
Despite some hand fighting, Wheaton has given up little if any horizontal space, but his speed is good enough to gain separation even while engaged in contact and unable to pump both arms or drive down field with his shoulders over his knees.
As Wheaton lengthens his vertical separation, I especially like that his hands remain low as he uses his eyes to track the ball. Despite having a step on the defender his hands are tipping off how close the ball in its trajectory to the receiver. This is another trick of the trade the separates that raw speedster who impresses fans enamored with stopwatch times from true NFL vertical threats with real potential for a lasting career as a starter.
Not two steps later, Wheaton turns to the ball and extends his arms. Although he catches the ball with his hands on most targets, I have heard some criticisms that Wheaton should extend his arms more to attack the ball. This play is a good example. However, I believe the fact that he’s good at hiding his intentions to make a play on the ball until the last moment often compensates. It doesn’t mean this criticism is invalid, but I do believe in many cases it’s less of a concern.
Note how Wheaton has the luxury of horizontal space to bend away from the defender to make the catch. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for a receiver to leave space between him and the sideline to make these adjustments. Most games involve establishing and maintaining position and this is just one of countless examples in football.
Wheaton brings the ball from his helmet to his side and demonstrates good ball security as the cornerback has nothing to grab but the receiver’s forearm. The best hope for UCLA’s defense to dislodge the football is from the safety’s impending hit.
No dice. It doesn’t appear this photo reveals much, but take a closer look at the receiver’s feet. The way Wheaton’s feet are pointed you can see that he has turned his body away from the incoming contact so the hit arrives at the receiver’s back rather than his arm. To demonstrate the skill to protect his body and the ball after making an athletic adjustment on a vertical route like this takes awareness and fluidity.
I value these little things about Wheaton’s game and it’s these small details that could make a big difference when he gets to the NFL.
For analysis of skill players in this year’s draft class, download the 2013 Rookie Scouting Portfolio available April 1. Prepayment is available now. Better yet, if you’re a fantasy owner the 56-page Post-Draft Add-on comes with the 2013 RSP at no additional charge. Best, yet, 10 percent of every sale is donated to Darkness to Light to combat sexual abuse. You can purchase past editions of the Rookie Scouting Portfolio for just $9.95 apiece.